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The internet makes writing as innovative as speech

When a medium acquires new functions, it will need to be adapted by means of creating new forms.

Many articles on how the internet has changed language are like linguistic versions of the old Innovations catalogue, showcasing the latest strange and exciting products of our brave new digital culture: new words (“rickroll”); new uses of existing words (“trend” as a verb); abbreviations (smh, or “shaking my head”); and graphic devices (such as the much-hyped “new language” of emojis). Yet these formal innovations are merely surface (and in most cases ephemeral) manifestations of a deeper change a change in our relationship with the written word.

I first started to think about this at some point during the Noughties, after I noticed the odd behaviour of a friend’s teenage daughter. She was watching TV, alone and in silence, while her thumbs moved rapidly over the keys of her mobile phone. My friend explained that she was chatting with a classmate: they weren’t in the same physical space, but they were watching the same programme, and discussing it in a continuous exchange of text messages. What I found strange wasn’t the activity itself. As a teenage girl in the 1970s, I, too, was capable of chatting on the phone for hours to someone I’d spent all day with at school. The strange part was the medium: not spoken language, but written text.

In 1997, research conducted for British Telecom found that face-to-face speech accounted for 86 per cent of the average Briton’s communications, and telephone speech for 12 per cent. Outside education and the (white-collar or professional) workplace, most adults did little writing. Two decades later, it’s probably still true that most of us talk more than we write. But there’s no doubt we are making more use of writing, because so many of us now use it in our social interactions. We text, we tweet, we message, we Facebook; we have intense conversations and meaningful relationships with people we’ve never spoken to.

Writing was not designed to serve this purpose. Its original function was to store information in a form that did not depend on memory for its transmission and preservation. It acquired other functions, of the social kind, among others; but even in the days when “snail mail” was less snail-like (in large cities in the early 1900s there were five postal deliveries a day), “conversations” conducted by letter or postcard fell far short of the rapid back-and-forth that ­today’s technology makes possible.

When a medium acquires new functions, it will need to be adapted by means of creating new forms. Many online innovations are motivated by the need to make written language do a better job of two things in particular: communicating tone, and expressing individual or group identity. The rich resources speech offers for these purposes (such as accent, intonation, voice quality and, in face-to-face contexts, body language) are not reproducible in text-based communication. But users of digital media have found ways to exploit the resources that are specific to text, such as spelling, punctuation, font and spacing.

The creative use of textual resources started early on, with conventions such as capital letters to indicate shouting and the addition of smiley-face emoticons (the ancestors of emojis) to signal humorous or sarcastic intent, but over time it has become more nuanced and differentiated. To those in the know, a certain respelling (as in “smol” for “small”) or the omission of standard punctuation (such as the full stop at the end of a message) can say as much about the writer’s place in the virtual world as her accent would say about her location in the real one.

These newer conventions have gained traction in part because of the way the internet has developed. As older readers may recall, the internet was once conceptualised as an “information superhighway”, a vast and instantly accessible repository of useful stuff. But the highway was a one-way street: its users were imagined as consumers rather than producers. Web 2.0 changed that. Writers no longer needed permission to publish: they could start a blog, or write fan fiction, without having to get past the established gatekeepers, editors and publishers. And this also freed them to deviate from the linguistic norms that were strictly enforced in print – to experiment or play with grammar, spelling and punctuation.

Inevitably, this has prompted complaints that new digital media have caused literacy standards to plummet. That is wide of the mark: it’s not that standards have fallen, it’s more that in the past we rarely saw writing in the public domain that hadn’t been edited to meet certain standards. In the past, almost all linguistic innovation (the main exception being formal or technical vocabulary) originated in speech and appeared in print much later. But now we are seeing traffic in the opposite direction.

Might all this be a passing phase? It has been suggested that as the technology improves, many text-based forms of online communication will revert to their more “natural” medium: speech. In some cases this seems plausible (in a few it’s already happening). But there are reasons to think that speech will not supplant text in all the new domains that writing has conquered.

Consider my friend’s daughter and her classmate, who chose to text when they could have used their phones to talk. This choice reflected their desire for privacy: your mother can’t listen to a text-based conversation. Or consider the use of texting to perform what politeness theorists call “face-threatening acts”, such as sacking an employee or ending an intimate relationship. This used to be seen as insensitive, but my university students now tell me they prefer it – again, because a text is read in private. Your reaction to being dumped will not be witnessed by the dumper: it allows you to retain your dignity, and gives you time to craft your reply.

Students also tell me that they rarely speak on the phone to anyone other than their parents without prearranging it. They see unsolicited voice calls as an imposition; text-based communication is preferable (even if it’s less efficient) because it doesn’t demand the recipient’s immediate and undivided attention. Their guiding principle seems to be: “I communicate with whom I want, when I want, and I respect others’ right to do the same.”

I’ll confess to finding this new etiquette off-putting: it seems ungenerous, unspontaneous and self-centred. But I can also see how it might help people cope with the overwhelming and intrusive demands of a world where you’re “always on”. (In her book Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World, Naomi Baron calls it “volume control”, a way of turning down the incessant noise.) As with the other new practices I’ve mentioned, it’s a strategic adaptation, exploiting the inbuilt capabilities of technology, but in ways that owe more to our own desires and needs than to the conscious intentions of its designers. Or, to put it another way (and forgive me if I adapt a National Rifle Association slogan): technologies don’t change language, people do.

Deborah Cameron is Professor of Language and Communication at the University of Oxford and a fellow of Worcester College

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times

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Pupils need internet classes? Here are 41 lessons they should learn

Forget privacy and security, here's what to do when a black and blue dress looks white and gold. 

It is imperative that children are taught how to survive and thrive on the internet, claims a new House of Lords report. According to the Lords Communication Committee, pupils need to learn how to stay safe, avoid addictive games, and become “digitally literate”.

It’s hard to argue with the report, which is a great step forward in acknowledging that the internet now basically = life. Yet although it is crucial that children learn how to stay private and secure online, there are also some equally crucial and not-at-all-flippant pieces of information that the youth urgently need to know. Here are the first 41 lessons in that curriculum.

  1. To figure out how much to donate towards your mate’s charity half-marathon, half X OR double Y, where X is the amount paid by their mum and Y is the amount donated by your closest rival, Becky
  2. Don’t mention that it’s snowing
  3. If – for some reason – you talk about bombs in a Facebook message, follow this up with “Hi Theresa May” in case Theresa May is looking, and then Theresa May will think you are just joking
  4. If you are on a train and you are annoyed about the train, do not tweet @ the social media manager who runs the account for the train, because they are not, in fact, the train
  5. If a Facebook meme starts “Only 10 per cent of people can get this puzzle right” – know that lies are its captain
  6. It’s not pronounced me-me
  7. Never say me-me nor meem, for they should not be discussed out loud
  8. People can tell if you’ve watched their Instagram stories
  9. People can’t tell if you’ve waded back through their Zante 2008 album and viewed all 108 photos
  10. People can tell if you’ve waded back through their Zante 2008 album and viewed all 108 photos if you accidentally Like one – in this circumstance, burn yourself alive
  11. Jet fuel can melt steel beams
  12. If a dog-walking photo is taken in the woods and no one uploads it; did it even happen?
  13. Google it before you share it
  14. Know that Khloe Kardashian does not look that way because of a FitTea wrap
  15. Do not seek solace in #MondayMotivation – it is a desolate place
  16. Respect JK Rowling
  17. Please read an article before you comment about a point that the article specifically rebutted in great detail in order to prepare for such comments that alas, inevitably came
  18. Don’t be racist, ok?
  19. Never, under any circumstances, wade into the Facebook comment section under an article about Jeremy Corbyn
  20.  If a dress looks white and gold to some people and black and blue to some others, please just go outside
  21. Open 200 tabs until you are crippled with anxiety. Close none of the tabs
  22. Despite the fact it should make you cringe, “smol puppers” is the purest evolution of language. Respect that
  23. Take selfies, no matter what anyone says
  24. Watch Zoella ironically until the lines of irony blur and you realise that the 20 minutes you immerse yourself into her rose-gold life are the only minutes of peace in your agonising day but also, what’s wrong with her pug? I hope her pug is ok
  25. Nazi Furries are a thing. Avoid
  26. Use Facebook’s birthday reminder to remember that people exist and delete them from your Friends list
  27. When a person you deleted from your Friends list inexplicably comes up to you IRL and says “Why?” pretend that your little cousin Jeff got into your account
  28. Don’t let your little cousin Jeff into your account
  29. “Like” the fact your friend got engaged even if you don’t actually like the fact she is reminding you of the gradual ebbing away of your youth
  30. No one cares about your political opinion and if they act like they do then I regret to inform you, they want to have sex with you
  31. Please don’t leave a banterous comment on your local Nando’s Facebook page, for it is not 2009
  32. Accept that the viral Gods choose you, you do not choose them
  33. Joke about your mental health via a relatable meme that is actually an agonising scream into the void
  34. Share texts from your mum and mock them with internet strangers because even though she pushed you out of her vagina and gave up her entire life to help you thrive as a person, she can’t correctly use emojis
  35. Follow DJ Khaled
  36. Decide that “Best wishes” is too blah and “Sincerely” is too formal and instead sign off your important email with “Happy bonfire night”” even though that is not a thing people say
  37. If someone from primary school adds you as Friend in 15 years, accept them but never speak again
  38. The mute button is God’s greatest gift
  39. Do not tell me a clown will kill me after midnight if I don’t like your comment because that is not a promise you can keep
  40. Don’t steal photos of other people’s pets
  41. Accept that incorrect "your"s and "you’re"s are not going anywhere and save yourself the time 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.